The capital of the northern Hauts-de-France region, Lille has a reputation as a hard-working industrial city, and has a fabulous historical centre. Until it was invaded by Louis XIV in 1667 Lille was actually Flemish, and this heritage is clear in the city’s architecture.
Old Lille has an abundance of baroque buildings, with delicately gabled roofs, and plush late-19th-century homes on engaging streets. If you’re on the hunt for culture you’ll be pleased with what you find: The Palace of Fine Arts is second only to the Louvre and there’s a clutch of smaller attractions that deserve your attention.
Lets explore the best things to do in Lille:
1. Old Lille
Lille’s historic district is a delight, with restored bourgeois houses on cobblestone streets.
You’ll pick up on the city’s Flemish influence when you see the baroque architecture dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Place Louise de Bettignies and Rue de la Monnaie are the best places to start a stroll, and you’ll spend most of the walk looking up at the decorative facades and gables, so be careful not to bump into anyone! Old Lille is a dynamic area too, with more than its fair share of bars and congenial nightspots.
2. Palais des Beaux-Arts
A simply enormous museum, Palais des BeauxArts is behind only the Louvre for size.
It’s in a lovely Belle Époque summer palace from the end of the 19th century, and you may need as long as half a day to get the most out of the museum and its art from the 1400s up to the 1900s.
There are works by Monet, Raphael, Gustave Courbet, Rubens, van Gogh, Donatello, Jacob Jordaens and Picasso, but this is just the swiftest breeze through what’s on show.
Make time for the plans-reliefs, which are high-detail 17th and 18th-century scale models of cities around modern day Belgium and northern France, including Lille.
3. La Vieille Bourse
Most agree that Lille’s old stock exchange is the finest building in the city.
It dates to the mid-17th century and consists of 24 Flemish renaissance houses, all around a central arcaded courtyard.
If you’re wondering how the facades can be so ornate, the main architect, Julien Destrée, was a decorative furniture designer by trade, and was given free rein to express himself on this project.
After more than 350 years La Vieille Bourse still a fixture of daily life in Lille; people come to play chess in the courtyard, and beneath the arcades there’s a daily flower and book market.
If you fancy it in summer you can watch dance demonstrations in this marvellous space.
4. Grand Place
Lille’s expansive main square is the place where locals and tourists converge to meet up or see the sights.
On all sides are wondrous old gabled buildings.
Pause to look at the Théâtre du Nord, set in Lille’s former guardhouse from 1717. That classic Flemish style has also been adopted by more modern structures, like the art deco Voix du Nord building next-door, which was built in 1936 and has a high crow-stepped gable.
At the heart of the square is the Colonne de la Déesse, put up in the 19th century to honour the city’s part in repelling the Habsburg Empire in the Siege of Lille in 1792.
5. Parc Zoologique
Located in the upmarket Esquermes quarter, Lille’s zoo is free to enter, placing it among the most-visited zoological attractions in all of France.
The zoo is pretty compact, but has 450 animals from 70-odd species and takes part in international conservation programs for endangered species.
The enclosures are all large and natural-looking too, so you won’t feel guilty about a family day out here.
There are seven areas in all, most organised geographically, so in Les Terres d’Afrique are zebras and rhinos, while the American zone has alpacas and tapirs.
Lille’s museum of modern art is a first-rate contemporary cultural attraction with more than 6,700 works from the 20th and 21st centuries.
It really took off in 1999 when it received a donation from L’Aracine, an association of Art Brut collectors, and now contains the largest set of Art Brut works in France.
Outsider artists like Augustin Lesage, Henry Darger and the famous schizophrenic Carlo Zinelli are all featured.
You can also see works by giants like Picasso, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Amedeo Modigliani and Alexander Calder.
The verdant sculpture park is good for a stroll too, with contributions from Jacques Lipchitz, Eugène Dodeigne, Picasso and Calder.
7. Lille Citadelle
After conquering Lille in 1667 Louis XIV wasted little time reinforcing the city’s fortifications.
The star-shaped citadel was built in just three years, and was designed by none other than Vauban, the famed military engineer who left his mark all across France in this time.
The speed of the project is all the more amazing when you see the quantity of material needed for its construction: Three million stone blocks, 70,000 lumps of sandstone and 60 million bricks.
The Citadel is still a French military base today, so you can’t enter, but you can admire the various gates and outer walls on a ramble in the canal-side park, in Esquermes, the same posh part of the city as the Zoo.
8. Stade Pierre-Mauroy
The local football team, Lille OSC have been a mainstay of Ligue 1 for many years, and managed to win the league in 2011. Things have been up and down for them since then, but the club has a swish new stadium if you’re up for some live football action.
Stade Pierre-Mauroy can seat 50,000,was built for EURO 2016 and hosted six matches during the tournament, including the quarter-final between Wales and Belgium.
In the summer the stadium doubles as a concert arena for major artists like Rihanna.
9. Maison Natale Charles de Gaulle
On Rue Pincesse, in a leafy neighbourhood north of Old Lille, is the house where Charles de Gaulle was born on November 22 1890. It belonged to his maternal grandparents, and his family was well-off, although it had lost its land in the Revolution almost a century before.
With the help of family keepsakes and contemporary memorabilia the house is now a museum doing a good job of recreating a 19th-century bourgeois home.
There are some artefacts that will catch the eye, like the general’s cradle, and the officer’s sword he received at the end of his first year at the Saint-Cyr military academy.
10. Town Hall and Belfry
The art deco Hôtel de Ville went up in the 1920s and took inspiration from Lille’s famous gables.
Flanders, to which Lille belonged for centuries, is a region noted for its belfries, and the town hall boasts the most recent and the highest of them all: It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site on its own, and rises to 104 metres.
In a low-rise city like Lille this concrete landmark is a useful marker wherever you are.
There are 400 steps to get to the top, but most sensible people will choose the lift!
Ticket available online: Town Hall Belfry Entry Ticket
11. Maison Folie Wazemmes
One of Lille’s massive textile mills has been transformed into a modern cultural centre.
It’s a red brick factory dating to 1855, and in 2004 the Dutch architectural agency NOX re-evaluated the two buildings to create a new landmark for the city.
Contemporary design harmonises with 19th-century architecture here: There’s more than 5,000 square metres for exhibitions, and an auditorium that can seat 250 and stand more than 700. When you’re in town check out the sinuous sheet metal facade and pop inside to see what’s on.
12. Villa Cavrois
Less than ten kilometres from Lille-Centre is the suburb of Croix where aficionados of modern architecture will be keen to tour this mansion designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens.
Villa Cavrois was built at the turn of the 1930s for the rich textile industrialist Paul Cavrois.
Mallet-Stevens was a proponent of the modernist school and the building is a physical manifesto constructed with guidelines demanding the provision of “air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort and efficiency”. The villa has conveniences almost unheard of at the time, like air-conditioning, electric lighting in all rooms and telephones for people to speak to each other in different rooms.
13. La Piscine Museum
Next-door to Croix is Roubaix, where there’s an imaginative cultural attraction set in a former indoor swimming pool.
The pool was completed in 1932 and was conceived in an exquisite art deco style.
It shut down in the 80s but was reopened as a wonderful space in which to showcase a large archive of textile samples gathered from Lille’s many textile factories.
This collection goes all the way back to 1835, so the museum will help you connect with Lille’s industrial past in a graceful venue
14. Palais Rihour
There aren’t many flamboyant gothic buildings in Lille, but this mansion completed for the Duke of Burgundy in 1453 is a nice example.
It now contains Lille’s tourist centre in the Salle des Gardes on the ground floor.
Upstairs the Sacristy, with lovely stained-glass windows, and the Salle du Conclave are venues for exhibitions and public events.
The square in front is also where Lille’s first-rate Christmas Market takes place in December, and where you could come to taste Lille’s cuisine.
Just between Place Rihour and Grand Place are typical restaurants cooking Flemish-style dishes like carbonnade Flamande, a beef stew made with beer and served with French fries.
15. Marché de Wazemmes
One of northern France’s best-loved and largest outdoor markets is held at Place Nouvelle Aventure on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings.
Of the three, Sunday is far the most vibrant and colourful, when there are hundreds of stalls and thousands of people show up to browse and buy.
You’ll note a Maghreb accent at Wazemmes, in the spices and exotic fruits and vegetables used in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine.
But really, you can find anything you desire, from rotisserie chicken hot from the spit to antiques, fresh fruits and veg and even clothing.
Cap your visit with a beer at one of the bars around the square.